New Shelton Wet/Dry 5-Gallon, New Hoover Convertible Doubledecker forms a part of Jeff Koons' celebrated, seminal series, The New. In this group of works, Koons presented the viewer with a range of pictures and objects, all of them readymades, appropriated from what seemed to be the factory floor: ads for new products, vitrines containing vacuum cleaners, and the illuminated photo of the artist himself, as a child, smiling angelically from the surface and surveying this pristine domain.
That link to childhood is all-important: New Shelton Wet/Dry 5-Gallon, New Hoover Convertible Doubledecker presents new products, unused, and therefore innocent, still in a childhood-like state of grace. These two objects are untouched, they are unused. They are clean, and are designed to clean. This, in short, is a commercial vision of paradise, an altar to the cleanliness that is so close to godliness, a gleaming shrine to the possibility to regain innocence and grasp paradise in the modern world. "I have always used cleanliness and a form of order to maintain for the viewer a belief in the essence of the eternal, so that the viewer does not feel threatened economically," Koons has explained. "When under economic pressure you start to see disintegration around you. Things do not remain orderly. So I have always placed order in my work not out of a respect for minimalism, but to give the viewer a sense of economic security" (J. Koons quoted in A. Muthesius), The Jeff Koons Handbook, London, 1992, p. 50).
In a previous group of works, called The Pre-New, Koons had presented domestic objects attached to light fixtures, resulting in strange new configurations. However, in The New, he adopted a new, more pared-back aesthetic, placing the cleaners within illuminated vitrines. "Once I encased it," Koons recalled, "that's when I think it really happened for me. I was starting to make art" (Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 108). In using these starkly-lit, see-through presentation cases, Koons was adopting the visual language of Minimalism, of Flavin, of museums, of consumerism, of appropriation and of Duchamp. In this way, he has succeeded in creating something which superficially appears to lampoon the fetishisation of the commercial world but which, on closer inspection, reveals further layers of profound and even spiritual meaning and implication.
Koons has deliberately selected these vacuum cleaners for their anthropomorphic qualities. The pair here appear almost as a couple, their different characteristics implying different characters. Placed in these glass cages, they also become like animals, their various appendages acting as bizarre substitutes for sexual organs, with the evocative Eva Hesse-like sack of the upper appliance and the hose and nozzle of the lower one. These machines contain phallic and womb-like elements, allowing Koons to explore, through them, ideas about the role of reproduction in the cycle of life which would reach a more explicit note some years later in his Made in Heaven series, while also allowing the artist to doff his cap towards the Erotomechanics of Duchamp and Picabia. These machines are sexual, yet immaculate. "A lot of my work tends to have anthropomorphic qualities," Koons has stated. "When I was thinking about using vacuum cleaners, I thought that they're like breathing machines. I always liked that quality of being like lungs. When you come into the world, the first thing you did is breathe to be able to live. I thought that for the individual to have integrity, the individual has to participate in life, and for the machine it is really the opposite. When they do function, they suck up dirt. The newness is gone. If one of these works were to be turned on, it would be destroyed" (Koons, quoted in H. Werner Holzwarth (ed.), Jeff Koons, Cologne, 2009, p. 112).